Can I See God?

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

I want to say to those who insist on favoritism by God for humans: there are other siblings—microbes and mountains, leopard and leeches, all beloved—Katharine M. Preston, “Earth’s Self-Care”

As we prepared for vacation, we had always planned to go whale-watching. However, I had little expectation that we would see any whales as previous attempts invariably resulted in no sightings. The only other occasion I saw a whale was one of those once-in-lifetime events that just happened while we were doing something else. Whales don’t order their movements on the off chance that humans will get to see them. But something about this experience was different. Every part of the journey to see whales felt like prayer. We were ten people gathered in a zodiac boat, sailing in silence past islands and inlets and winding our way over large and small waves and wakes with sea water spraying our faces and the smell of marine life reminding us that we were in another habitat. It felt sacred and serious. An unspoken prayer kept repeating in my mind, “Let us see your glory.” And then we saw them. A pod of 4 orcas just a few feet away, one of which remained temporarily several yards away from the group to hunt for food. Their every breach of the surface filled us with joy.

 

I was surprised by my reaction. I could not contain my emotion nor hold back the tears. And I know that I was exclaiming words of awe, praise, and amazement, but I don’t remember what I was saying precisely. I knew I had been audibly responding to the beautiful sight because a woman who sat next to us on the boat asked, “what is wrong with us? Why can’t we pull ourselves together?” I’ve been reflecting on that question since that experience. We couldn’t “pull ourselves together” because we had encountered something holy, revelatory, and beloved.

 

We also saw harmony in the creation beyond our need to control or exploit it. We saw how another of God’s creations lived in nature, unmoved by our desire or concern for anything else other than its immediate need for food and community. These beautiful, gentle giants took no more food or territory than they needed and remained oblivious to the small boat tracking their movements. In their habitat and their migration, they ministered to me. I heard a sermon in their presence, action, and engagement with the creation: we are not the center of the world; God moves in and through all of God’s good creation; their purpose for being and existing is beyond my comprehension but must be an essential component of God’s work in the world. It humbled me. And it begged the question: how do we resist the human tendency toward mastery and dominion when it comes to God’s creation? How can we honor and be a part of creation with commitment, reciprocity, and mutuality?

The Church Can Still Change

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

So many progressive church spaces are made up of people showing up, saying they want transformation, but again and again choosing comfort instead . . . the church is filled with people who want the beautiful outcome promised in the Gospel without any of the real sacrifice of change” —Andrew Lang

 

A colleague sent around an article recently with the provocative title, “Why Church Won’t Change.” It sounded like clickbait, so I hesitated to read it at first, but my curiosity got the better of me. Upon reading it, I wish it was something I could easily dismiss or whose argument I could pick apart. I also wanted to believe that the writer was overstating the challenges or was unaware of the exceptions to his belief that the church will not change. And yet, there is something prophetic about how he truthfully contends with the desire within many churches, especially progressive churches, for social justice transformation without changing anything about our habits, practices, and traditions. There does appear to be a gap between what we desire for our communities and places of faith and the level of effort and sacrifice we are willing to expend to make it so.

 

But I still believe the church can and will change. I think there are enough of us willing to imagine, experiment, and release in ways that break through apathy, caution, and resistance to experience fundamental transformation. Andrew Lang admits that “we are thirsty for intentionality, a dedication to real justice, an end to platitudes, and deep commitment to exploring the inner life.” This is fertile ground for change. Our intentionality and dedication can transform practices and move resources in ways that inspire change and invite people to take the church seriously again.

 

I know the church has found its comfort and success in religious tradition, institutional practices, and cultural realities that bind us to the status quo. At a time when our democracy is facing a moral crisis because of the politics of grievance and resentment, white supremacy, and abandonment of norms of political participation and representation, the church may be the last repository of a robust conversation about the work of justice and the power of sacred space to embolden the pursuit of justice. Lang concluded that the work of justice would “form around the dinner table and in organizing circles,” not in the church. But there is no reason the church can’t face its resistance and reluctance as part of doing justice work and making fundamental change. Perhaps that becomes the church’s priority over outsized considerations about growth and attendance: making the church the space for the intentional pursuit of the work of justice, not just talking about justice. It’s about challenging ourselves not to let buildings, committees, and traditions limit our imagination or intention. If we did that, the church could still change.

My Heart Can’t Break Today

By

Rev. DeWayne L. Davis

 

Over the last few months, I have attended several religious and theological conferences. Many sermons, workshops, and presentations have focused on responding theologically and prophetically to intractable problems in our world. Experts and theologians have provided great wisdom that I know will help me address various cultural, political, and economic issues impacting our community. In those conference offerings, there was no minimizing how bad things are nor any attempt to mask or avert the gaze from the horrors of war, racism, and oppression. At a recent workshop, just as I was settling to hear a presentation and began to take notes, I heard myself whispering, “I need a break from the hard stuff today. I don’t know if my heart can take another break.” At that moment, I remembered a poem I wrote after the news of the killing of Philando Castille when I was not ready for one more story of police violence and the killing of another black person. I know the work of justice continues, but I am compelled on some days to say . . .

 

My heart can’t break today.

I want to take a walk and enjoy the breeze.

I want to sit out on the deck, drink good wine, and tell good stories.

I want to laugh hard and be loud about silly stuff.

 

My heart can’t break today.

I want to pay attention to the gifts of blue sky, singing birds,

and oddly shaped clouds that look like puppies, Jesus, or one of the Golden Girls.

I want to see old friends and reminisce about bad dates, big mistakes,

and how we overcame them.

 

My heart can’t break today.

I want to think warmly about people before they profile me, ignore me,

or hurt me.

I want to trust in the ideals and values they taught us in school

long enough to combat the cynicism and hopelessness

of one who has seen too many sad things.

 

My heart can’t break today.

The weight of hard things has made my heart too heavy.

The distance between the ups and downs keeps shrinking.

I need time to recover, see hopeful things, and hear better news.

No, my heart can’t break today. So, wait to tell me what you have to say to me.

The Power of an Expansive Theological Imagination

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

 

“Theology that arises from Scripture and from the teachings of Jesus does not allow for the identification and exclusion of the other” —Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths

 

Trolling social media the other day, I saw the latest outrage precipitated by a religious attack on democracy, women’s rights, or LGBTQ people. They come so frequently now and are so similar in their details that any specific story I chose to share would be familiar. As the commenters to the posts discussed the theological reasoning behind each religious persecution, it saddened me to notice that what they were describing revealed a stunted theological imagination, an inability to see within the biblical witness divine resistance and creative response to the ugliness of a fallen social reality. It takes very little imagination to give oneself theological permission to do harmful, self-interested things and maintain a status quo in the current social reality that never liberates or expands society’s social and material benefits to the most vulnerable among us.

 

I discovered the power of theological imagination early in my life. All of the explanations I received from my parents and church for why going to the movies, attending parties, or prohibiting women from wearing pants arose from a reading of the Bible that reinforced an existing social reality and worldview. Specifically, my church and family had embraced values and practices for organizing and structuring their lives and used Scripture to support and justify them. Therein lies the power and danger of the theological imagination: it can either dull and distort or expand and enliven the social imagination. Suppose my theology permits everything I want, upholds my power and privilege, and imposes the values and practices I’ve constructed on society and culture. In that case, it will be hard for me to imagine an alternative, much less an alternative that mirrors God’s shalom for the entire creation.

 

A careful reading of Scripture does not easily result in the kinds of diabolical actions and oppressive ideologies humanity embraces to shape and control our social reality. Only a diseased social imagination, beholden to the logic of power, exclusion, and white supremacy, would distort the whole of the biblical narrative to create a social reality that serves only the individual, one race, or one ethnicity. Reading Scripture in ways that stifle the imagination, protect the status quo of inequality and oppression, and reinforce the worst tendencies to hoard and exclude others is a conscious decision. With every encounter with Scripture, we have an opportunity to embrace a theology that inspires covenant and connectivity across differences in race, sex, gender, ethnicity, and religion. I pray that our reading of sacred text inspires us with theological imagination that widens the welcome circle, affirms the dignity of all creation, and includes God’s diverse humanity in the beloved community without condition or compromise. May it be so.

Justice in Public Life

By
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

“Remove your evil deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16b-17)

 

Over the last few years, religious people and institutions have been at the center of the political upheaval in our nation. There is a deep distrust of and dissatisfaction with institutions that many people are inclined to abandon or tear them all down, including the church. Anger and anxiety permeate spiritual spaces such that religious people cannot be counted on to inspire the public to care for the poor, do justice, or welcome strangers. Even the folk who attend church faithfully and consider themselves highly observant of spiritual practices appear to be more beholden to their ideology than they are to their God. As a result, our public life is in trouble.

 

In describing Isaiah’s prophetic utterances to Israel, the theologian Walter Brueggemann has suggested that not reflecting God’s will in public life will lead to trouble in public life. Not only is there trouble in our public life, but it also appears that religious people have ceased to be exemplars of the grace, mercy, and justice to which the biblical witness testifies as central to God’s character. The words, worship, and presence of religious people in the public square may arguably reflect less what is important to God and more often what is important politically. If you look at how the religious show up in public life, you’d think God only cares about abortion, protecting the right to bear arms, closing public restrooms to trans people, and Supreme Court nominees. Our songs, prayers, and liturgies talk about a God who cares about the poor, justice, and loving our neighbors. Yet, when the church shows up in public life, it is mainly silent or hostile when it comes to doing justice.

 

I recently saw a book in the religion section of the bookstore with a title that suggested that social justice is anti-God, anti-biblical, and destructive to the church. But according to Isaiah, doing justice is an undeniable, non-negotiable part of being in relationship with God. Taking care of the most vulnerable is not a suggestion for God; it is imperative. Isaiah prophesied to Israel that God didn’t want to be flattered and did not share the gifts of worship and covenant for their sake alone. Israel failed, and its public life shattered. Yes, we are experiencing trouble in public life. We are engaged in a heated and frenzied struggle over the future. However, I hope we double down on seeking justice in response. May we all do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. May it be so.

Taking Time to Notice Beauty

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

I want to tell you that the world is still beautiful . . . I still believe we are capable of attention, that anyone who notices the world must want to save it”—Rebecca Baggett, “Testimony”

 

Several weeks ago, I stopped at an intersection traffic light behind a car with several bumper stickers plastered on its rear bumper. When the light turned green, the driver took far too long to move because they were distracted by something in their center console or passenger seat. In annoyance and impatience, I was just about to blow my car horn and let loose with words I shouldn’t use when I noticed the message on one of the bumper stickers: “There is so much beauty in the world. Take time to notice it.” I don’t know how it worked, but my anger immediately subsided, and I searched for the beauty around me. A few days ago, a colleague of mine posted a wedding anniversary picture with her spouse with a crudely painted message on the wall behind them, “Life is beautiful.” I found myself nodding in agreement. Okay, I get the message. Beauty surrounds us. I am convinced that transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is right in his conclusion that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” Our loss is failing to notice it.

 

With so many challenges menacing the world, especially the destructive consequences of our abuse and exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, we may forget just how still beautiful the world is. I take for granted the beautiful plants and flowers in the courtyard at church. Sometimes, I forget to take notice of the sky or a tree until someone points them out to me. Noticing beauty may not answer the world’s most profound problems or injustices. Still, it can be a necessary temporary distraction from the hard stuff that creates feelings of despair and hopelessness. Yes, I know beauty is subjective, but whether its effect is emotional or intellectual, the beauty around us can be a source of delight no matter what else.

 

In light of the depressing news about war and violence, pandemics and climate change, and political backlash and polarization, the words and wisdom of poets have reminded me of the world’s beauty more so than scripture. Don’t get me wrong. The biblical witness about love, justice, and God’s faithfulness affirm my faith and fortify my resolve. But the poets often serve as the heralds of beauty ignored, forgotten, or discounted. The poet Rebecca Baggett invites us “to look again and again” to recognize beauty in the tender grass, the river rocks, and the October leaves. Perhaps that can be a new discipline to incorporate into our spiritual practices and explorations: taking intentional time to notice beauty. I pray that each day you find beauty around you in which to delight. May it be so.

Enfleshing Good Religion

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

What about the [Jericho] road? It is important to take care of people. It is important to be a good neighbor. But somebody needs to fix the road . . . I’m sick and tired of poor religion

—Bishop Yvette Flunder

 

I attended The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) biannual leadership conference this past week. TFAM is a radically inclusive, trans-denominational fellowship of churches and ministers founded by Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder in 2000 to propagate “a radical social ministry, reaching to the furthest margins of society to serve all in need without prejudice and discrimination.” We gathered again at a time that is far more politically, culturally, and economically fraught for women, the poor, and LGBTQ people. The theme of the conference was “Have We Got Good Religion?” a provocative riff off the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual Certainly Lord, which asks, “have you got good religion” and “do you love ev’rybody.” The theme set out an intentional contrast with the churches, theologies, and religious collectivities that have used their authority and influence not to liberate and empower the poor, the oppressed, or the marginalized seeking justice but to serve their own power and political interests by controlling the levers of governmental power. It is an acknowledgment that there is bad or poor religion, which is not a force for good in the world.

 

Bishop Flunder set the frame for considering what “good religion” looks like in her sermon at the opening worship and plenary, using the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke as her preaching text. In describing the dangerous Jericho Road and the laudable response of the Samaritan in demonstrating the good religion of love and care for a suffering neighbor, Bishop Flunder lamented that the most visible manifestation of faith in our current culture and politics is “where the religious cross the road” to avoid serving their neighbors in need and never work to fix dangerous roads where people get hurt.

 

At a time when people of faith are searching for ways to be a constructive force for collective action in a toxic political environment, this conference issued a prophetic call on people with a progressive faith to engage a public hungry for proactive religious responses to the betrayal of women and their right to reproductive justice, retrenchment from voting rights and multiracial democracy, and backlash against racial justice and LGBTQ rights. Every prophetic word prompted us to consider how we may enflesh and manifest “good religion” that sees, loves, and affirms all of God’s beloved. Although bad religion appears to be winning the day, and even if the politicians who seek our votes and support are failing to meet the moment, we have an opportunity to enflesh and manifest a “good religion” that works on both serving our neighbors and fixing systems to which too many of our neighbors remain vulnerable. I pray we show the world good religion.

We Do Not Lose Heart

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”—2 Corinthians 4:8-9

 

I recently told a friend that I was wrestling with how to remain steady and hopeful amid consistently bad news about the justice issues I care about. With recent Supreme Court decisions overturning Roe v. Wade and weakening the separation between church and state, persistent state and community violence cutting short young Black and brown lives, and democratic institutions and elected officials unable to protect the right to vote or respond to urgent human needs, it’s hard to be hopeful about the future. We seem to be moving further away from realizing a multi-racial democracy, generous social safety, environmental sustainability, and reproductive justice even as our society gets more unequal, less safe, and more polarized. A panelist of commentators on a podcast I listen to recently concluded that the electoral prospects of candidates who can overturn these setbacks remain dismal. How do you not fall into resignation? What do you rely upon to keep on keeping on?

 

But I take comfort in knowing that change happens. And as the writer Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “We can play a role in that change if we act.” The scary things we are witnessing, the losses we are experiencing, and the setbacks we are confronting require our action. We can’t lose heart. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares twice with confidence, “We do not lose heart.” He would have had every reason to lose heart, considering the criticism he was getting from church folks and the persecution he had undergone. He had been arrested and jailed too many times to count. He wasn’t performing spectacular miracles that could draw in the people and the money. He was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but he could testify confidently that he is never crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. In Paul’s ministry, we get a window into the internal contradiction inherent in embracing our faith, church, and discipleship in pursuit of justice: what we do is filled with both glory and suffering. But we do not lose heart.

 

The biblical witness portrays Jesus, Paul, and other exemplary figures of the faith as meeting the moment, confronting destructive and oppressive empires and principalities with faithfulness and determination. In our history, vulnerable people met their respective moments with courage and persistence, whether it was the segregation and discrimination of Jim Crow, the sexism of a patriarchal nation, or the neglect and homophobia of a government content to sacrifice sexual minorities to the ravages of AIDS. They did not succumb to self-defeating despair. And they made change happen. So, we do not lose heart. Love, justice, and reason are calling out for us to keep on keeping on. May God bless us to be agents of change. Amen.

What Justice Demands

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

Male power over women means a denial of women’s right to control their own bodies. Denial of reproductive decision making is fundamental to this control—Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk

 

Throughout my years working on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, I regularly saw anti-choice activists converging on the Capitol grounds, advocating for overturning the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which protected women’s constitutional right to have an abortion. These activists were often religious people, carrying placards and flyers with religious messages and Bible passages steeped in normative constructs of male sovereignty and denigration of women’s agency and autonomy. Now that the Supreme Court has overturned the precedent, I wonder how much of a role theology played in this ultimate betrayal of a woman’s right to control her body. If it’s just politics, we respond with better ideas, organizing, and mobilization to restore a right. But a scarier thought is that our religious rhetoric is still shaped by normative and essentialist constructions of sex, gender, and sexuality that continue to threaten women’s agency and autonomy.

 

I am convinced that the overturning of Roe is not a religious or theological victory. It is a political victory resulting from years of organizing, fundraising, and mobilizing people using a Christian tradition that “denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women.” And yet, we are stuck with a destructive, oppressive theological paradigm of sex, love, and desire that privileges male power, concerns, and intrusion in matters having to do with a woman’s choices about her life, body, and pursuit of happiness. So, this is a justice issue, requiring the ongoing work of liberation from the patriarchal dictates of religion so that the human dignity and the equal humanity of women are affirmed and celebrated.

 

There can be no justice for women when mostly male judges and politicians substitute their will and preferences for women in law and the Constitution. A religious and political-institutional tradition that has historically silenced, dominated, and ignored women’s voices, agency, and dignity is wholly inconsistent with the biblical vision of justice in God’s acts of liberation. My belief in justice leads me to affirm the right of all women to consult with the God of their understanding and the medical professionals of their choosing when making decisions about their own reproductive health care. My belief in justice leads me to respect the right of women to fully engage their faith on questions of moral direction and consult their doctors for their health care without sanction or interference by the government or any other institution. As we embark on the political enterprise to restore a woman’s right to choose, I pray that we are led by the liberating power of a gracious and generous God in whose image and likeness the women of the world reveal what is good, right, and just. May it be so.

The Interruptions of Grace

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

“God did not make this person as I would have made him . . . We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

 

For as long as people have gathered to be the church, they have had to negotiate their differences and make room for others. Our culture and economics have conditioned us to move through the world as individuals, independent and self-reliant central units of concern, free to be unconstrained by the state or our social group. We have been conditioned to value individualism so highly that we rarely see how it threatens another value we hold—covenant, the binding of ourselves together in community despite our differences. Choosing to be in community when the world expects otherwise is a sign of grace. The Gospels portray Jesus’ encounter with his disciples and strangers as interruptions of grace, a providential gathering of people in covenant as part of the reign of God.

 

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer acknowledged the tensions inherent when people show up in our communities with claims and petitions because “God did not make this person as I would have made him.” But to be beloved community means to love one another, bear each other’s burdens, and maintain fellowship. In our beloved community, we confronted competing claims and petitions explicitly about displaying two beloved embroideries. Our disagreement over these precious treasures is painful, and many members feel a profound, piercing loss. Our life together compels us to hold grief and loss as one body, and our task is to heal our bond and maintain our fellowship.

 

The world does not expect us to heal or come together. The privileging of unfettered choice and self-sufficient individualism forecast that the easier option is to forego community. But I believe in and choose beloved community. I believe in and choose Plymouth Church. Ours is a beloved community marked by generous hospitality and giving and receiving love that counters the empire’s emphasis on contention and polarization. While it hurts to be at odds with one another, polarization is not our story nor the whole of who and what we are. We are a unique revelation of God’s presence and movement in the world, with each of us being interruptions of grace in the life of Plymouth. The world is hurting so much that people want to know where God is. People want to see signs of love, good, peace, of change. Despite all that we have been through, I pray we remember our covenant and who and whose we are. I pray we live out love, good, peace, and change so God may be revealed to the world. May it be so.